Princess Diana in Cartier Tank. Photo: Cartier
When it made its debut 100 years ago, the Cartier Tank watch immediately became a style statement.
Rudolph Valentino, the original Latin Lover of Hollywood, apparently loved it so much that he insisted on wearing it every day when he was shooting his last movie, The Son Of The Sheikh (1926).
Andy Warhol famously described the Tank as a “state of mind”.
“I don’t really wear it to tell the time. Actually, I never even wind it. I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear,” said the leading figure of the pop art movement who died in 1987.
Andy Warhol in Cartier Tank. Photo: Cartier
Time has not diminished its appeal.
Its legion of famous fans over the last century include playwright Truman Capote, matinee idols Cary Grant and Gary Cooper, Princess Diana, actresses Angelina Jolie and Catherine Deneuve, former United States First Lady Michelle Obama and fashion designer Tom Ford.
Entire books have been written about the watch including Cartier: The Tank Watch by Franco Cologni. The writer and historian describes the timepiece as a VIO (Very Important Object) and equates its status to “the most famous of human VIPs”.
The watch was designed by Louis Cartier and inspired by the Renault FT 17 tanks used during World War I. The prototype was reportedly given to Captain John Pershing, leader of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during the war, and to several of his officers.
In an era when pocket watches were the mainstay, the Tank played a major role in making wristwatches popular for men.
The shape of the case, both a square and a rectangle, was a radical breakaway from the traditional round ones. The strap, meanwhile, is seamlessly integrated into vertical sidebars called “brancards” which look like the parallel treads of a tank.
The simple rectilinear lines were a deliberate departure from the curves and fussy details of the then- prevalent Art Nouveau style, which Louis Cartier abhorred. Instead, he took inspiration from Art Deco and other movements such as cubism.
It is rare for any watch model to be produced over such a long period. But the Tank has many things going for it besides its aesthetic appeal. It is gender-neutral, sitting well on the wrists of both men and women.
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The other defining Tank features that have enduring appeal include the Roman numerals, the blue steel hands, the blue sapphire mounted on the crown, the brancards and the chemin de fer. The latter refers to the double line, reminiscent of railroad tracks, on the dial of every Tank.
Over the years, Cartier has released different variations of the Tank. It has adopted sizes big and small, been bejewelled and fashioned out of different materials.
The first Tank that was produced was called the Normale. Other iterations over the last century include Tank Cintree, Tank Chinoise, Tank Americaine and Tank Francoise.
In June this year, Jackie Onassis’ Cartier Tank Ordinaire was auctioned by Christie’s for nearly US$380,000 (S$510,600). The buyer was rumoured to be reality television star Kim Kardashian.
Investment banker Tim Yong, 33, has half a dozen vintage Tanks, which he bought from flea markets, dealers and auctions.
“I started collecting them in the early 2000s when I was living in New York,” says the Singaporean, adding that he is drawn to the watch’s iconic case design. “I think it is one of the best value-for- money classic watches.”
One of his more unusual pieces is the Bamboo Tank Coussin from the 1970s, with a yellow bamboo-style case he got from a dealer in Hong Kong. Another is a limited-edition Tank Asymmetric, inspired by, some say, Salvador Dali’s melting clock.
Dr Serene Lim, a paediatric anaesthetist, has two Cartier Tanks, one of which is a Tank Louis Cartier and the other, a Tank Basculante with a blue grey dial.
First introduced in 1933, the Basculante has a foldover case which makes it unique. It has often been compared with Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso. But unlike the Reverso, which has a case that moves from left to right on a horizontal axis, the Basculante flips upside-down in a swinging frame.
Mr Yong says: “The Tank today is like a crocodile. It hasn’t changed over the decades. That makes it comforting, timeless and tasteful.”
New Cartier Tank models to mark its 100th anniversary
1) Tank Cintree Skeleton
First born in 1921, the Cintree (above) has a compressed profile making it slimmer and narrower than its other Tank siblings.
It also boasts curves which hug the wrist.
This new Cintree comes with a unique manually wound skeleton movement: the 9917 MC calibre produced in-house by Cartier. It is curved to match the case.
There are two versions, one in pink gold and the other in platinum. Both are limited editions, with 100 pieces each.
Prices are $88,500 for the pink gold version and $98,000 for the platinum model.
2) Tank Americaine
Launched in 1989, the Americaine (above) is an update of the Tank Cintree shape, with a more compact case and rounded brancards.
Previously produced in precious metal, the new Americaine now comes in steel and in three different sizes.
All models come with a silvered dial with Roman numerals that wrap around the edge of the dial. The small model has a quartz movement, the medium and large ones have an automatic movement.
The Americaine comes with a buckle which allows the strap to be adjusted. Prices range from $5,500 to $7,900.
3) Tank Louis Cartier
Thanks to its clean lines and balanced proportions, this remains one of the most beloved Tank models.
The new models come in two sizes, a large version and two small versions, one of which is adorned with 40 brilliant-cut diamonds.
All models come in pink gold, but there is also a white-gold version for the small diamond-set model.
The new Tank Cartiers are fitted with the hand-wound Calibre 8971 MC mechanical movement and come with alligator straps and gold ardillon buckles.
The small pink gold model is priced at $13,800.
This article was first published on The Straits Times